WASHINGTON – Gordon Sondland, the United States ambassador to the European Union, told House investigators Wednesday that President Donald Trump and other top administration officials sought a quid pro quo with Ukraine, tying military aid to an announcement of an investigation into political rival Joe Biden.
“Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret,” Sondland told the House Intelligence Committee, adding that in response to the “simple question: ‘was there a quid pro quo?’…The answer is yes.”
Sondland was the first witness in four days of House testimony to directly implicate Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, former National Security Adviser John Bolton and others in a scheme to withhold nearly $400 million in U.S. military assistance until Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky publicly declared investigations into Biden, a Ukraine company called Burisma, and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 American presidential election.
Sondland said that despite his objections, he and others worked with Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. “We followed the president’s orders,” the envoy said.
He said that over time he came to infer there were preconditions for an Oval Office meeting with Trump and the release of the military aid.
Sondland emphasized there was no side channel engaged in seeking a quid pro quo with Ukraine.
“I don’t know how someone could characterize something as an irregular channel when you’re talking to the president of the United States, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, the chief of staff of the White House, the secretary of energy,” Sondland said.
The stunning testimony appeared to strengthen Democrats’ contentions that Trump abused his power by seeking a personal political favor from a foreign leader in exchange for the exercise of his official duties.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, chairman of the House panel, called Sondland’s appearance “a seminal moment” in the impeachment inquiry.
“Today’s testimony is among the most significant evidence to date,” Schiff said in a press conference during a break, adding that lawmakers, “heard for the first time that knowledge of this scheme was pervasive.”
The U.S. envoy’s assertions were a key change from his previous testimony in a closed-door session last month, a shift that Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-New York, called “a doozy.”
In his private deposition last month, Sondland said he was not aware of any deliberations that Ukrainian military aid was contingent on public investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election. Then, nearly three weeks later, Sondland’s lawyers issued a short addendum to his testimony, providing support for other witnesses’ affirmations that Ukrainian military aid was contingent upon Zelensky announcing the investigations.
In his opening statement, Sondland said he is “not a note taker,” and that having access to State Department materials, which were denied to him, would have made his testimony more clear and the “process more transparent.”
Trump, leaving for a political trip to Texas, told reporters at the White House that he wanted nothing from Zelensky. Reading from notes written in bold, capital letters, the president repeated his defense that he sought “no quid pro quo” from Ukraine.
— Getty Images News (@GettyImagesNews) November 20, 2019
As for the ambassador, whom he appointed after Sondland donated $1 million to the presidential inaugural committee, Trump insisted “I don’t know him very well,” adding, “He seems like a nice guy though.”
When told that in the hearing by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, Sondland smiled and said: “Easy come, easy go.”
The ambassador appeared in defiance of the White House and State Department’s demands that he refuse to do so.
“I agreed to testify because I respect the gravity of the moment and I believe I have an obligation to account fully for my role in these events,” Sondland said.
California Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the intelligence panel, lashed out against the Democrats, calling them “partisan extremists.” He then extended a warm welcome to Sondland, thanking him for his service and apologizing that he had to be there to testify, a gesture that seemed at odds with the ambassador’s following testimony that there was, indeed, a quid pro quo.
Later, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York, pressed Sondland in an effort to disconnect Trump from the quid pro quo.
“You testified, ‘President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on the investigations?'” Stefanik asked.
“That’s correct,” the ambassador replied.
The impeachment inquiry is rooted in a July 25 phone call between Zelensky and Trump, after which a whistleblower alleged Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine until Zelensky announced investigations into former Biden and his son Hunter’s connections with Burisma.
Sondland also emphasized how the appearance of an investigation was more important to Trump than an investigation itself, saying Zelensky, “had to announce the investigations — he didn’t have to actually do them.”
But much of Sondland’s testimony centered on a phone call the following day. David Holmes, a State Department official, overheard the phone call between Trump and Sondland while he was dining with the ambassador in the Ukrainian capital.
Holmes said the ambassador told Trump that Zelensky would do anything he asked for, adding that he “loves your ass.”
“That’s how President Trump and I communicate, a lot of four-letter words,” Sondland said, to laughter from attendees at the hearing. He later referred to the phrase as putting it in “Trump speak.”
When Nunes began his line of questioning, he outlined the reasons he said Trump was wary of Ukraine and he stressed Republicans’ demands to have Hunter Biden testify, which he said Democrats have refused to honor.
Then, Stephen Castor, a GOP lawyer, questioned Sondland on his familiarity with the president, calling his testimony the “trifecta of unreliability,” mentioning his lack of note taking, reliance on speculation and often lapsed memory.
Some of the key figures Sondland referenced in his testimony disputed his claims.
Pence chief of staff Marc Short issued a statement saying: “The Vice President never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations.”
But Schiff and other Democrats clearly felt Sondland’s testimony was critical evidence against Trump, a signal that articles of impeachment seem even more likely.
While Republicans said throughout the hearing that Democrats had been insistent on pursuing impeachment from even before Trump was formally elected, Schiff sought to rebut that in stern closing remarks.
“This is not something we relish. For over a year I resisted this whole idea of going down the road to impeachment,” Schiff said.
The president’s actions made it inevitable, he said.
“Getting caught is no defense. Not to a violation of the Constitution,” Schiff said “Or to a violation of his oath of office. And it certainly doesn’t give us a reason to ignore our own oath of office.”